Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the United Nations General Assembly Spousal Luncheon in New York City

September 24, 2013

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you all. It's wonderful to see you all. Please, please rest. I am beyond thrilled to have you all here today.

I want to start by, of course, thanking Thelma, not just for her kind introduction, but for hosting us here today. For a museum of this size, it's quite a heavy lift to bring in the spouses from countries all over the world. So I am so grateful to Thelma and the entire staff here at the Studio Museum for making this visit possible, and for putting in so much work to make it such a wonderful success.

I also want to thank Marcus Samuelsson, who is the chef for today. He and his staff from a restaurant located here in Harlem, Red Rooster -- one of my favorites -- they will be preparing a very delicious and culturally exciting lunch for us. He couldn't be here today, but in our gift -- the basket that I'm providing to each of you, there is a wonderful book of his recipes that he has signed for all of you, just to show his gratitude for all that you all do for this country and this world.

I also want to recognize Mrs. Ban, who is here today. She is one of my favorite people, and I'm just so grateful that you could be here today. And I have to, of course, thank and recognize all of the wonderful young people and performers who are a part of today's event. We are going to see some beautiful children from the Dance Theater of Harlem, who will perform for us. And as Thelma mentioned, all of the talented students who have provided the music today from the La Guardia Arts High School -- we should give them a round of applause. They did a wonderful job. (Applause.) So very talented. It is such a pleasure to be able to showcase young talent, and to give them this kind of forum to show their hard work.

But we're going to also have a very special treat -- one of my dear friends, who is a Tony and Grammy Award-winning star, Audra McDonald, who is going to sing. She has the voice of an angel, and she will be here to grace us with a performance, as well.

And finally, I truly want to thank all of you, our distinguished guests from across the globe. It is such a pleasure to be able to welcome you all here to this great American city, but more importantly, to this great American neighborhood.

Now, there's a reason why I wanted to bring you all to Harlem today, and that is because this community, as Thelma mentioned, is infused with a kind of energy and passion that is quintessentially American, but that has also touched so many people around the world.

As you may know, in the early 20th century, Harlem was the cultural heart of the black community in the United States. And this neighborhood drew some of the greatest African American artists our country has ever known -- painters like Aaron Douglas. Writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Musicians like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington.

Many of these men and women left the South just a couple of generations after the end of slavery. And they were desperate to find a place where they could explore their talents and express their ideas freely. This moment in history came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, and together, the artists who lived in this neighborhood sought to define and articulate the African American experience.

And their art was truly a revelation for the African American community. Their paintings depicted black subjects. Their novels and plays featured black protagonists. Their music and dance brilliantly expressed the complexity of the black experience in America –- all of its struggles and triumphs, the tragedies and joys.

But the influence of these artists wasn't just felt here in America. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong lit up stages throughout Europe. Aaron Douglas' art has been viewed by people across the globe. And young people from so many nations have been inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes, particularly his famous poet -- poem "Dreams," with its timeless words: "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly."

So in a way, this neighborhood is a thread that connects all of us here today, no matter where we're from or what language we speak. And I think the same can be said for the exhibit we're surrounded by today –- these works of art by Robert Pruitt that you see on the wall which highlight the strength and dignity of women.

While Mr. Pruitt is an American artist, I think that all of us as women can relate to the beauty and power of his work. And I think that all of us can agree on the importance of the subject he chose to focus on -- in fact, I know that many of you have devoted significant time and effort to improving the lives of women and girls in your countries. Now, this is an issue that I also care deeply about, especially when it comes to education.

Everywhere I go in the world, I meet so many wonderful young girls -- girls with so much promise, girls eager and desperate to learn, girls who just blossom when they get that one chance to go to school and to start scratching at the fulfillment of their potential. And when they get that chance

-- when both boys and girls have an equal opportunity to learn

-- we all know that's not just good for our children, it's also good for their families and it's good for their countries as well.

And that's why, whenever I talk to young people, particularly here in the United States, I urge them to pour everything they have into their education -- everything. I tell them that no matter what challenges they face, no matter what their schools looks like, no matter what's going on in their homes, it us up to them to get to school every day. It is up to them to pay attention in class. It's up to them to do their homework every night.

I remind them that it's up to them to take responsibility for their education. And I tell them that ultimately, their success in school won't just shape their futures, it will also shape the future of their country.

Because we all here know that when it comes to the pressing issues of our time –- whether it's climate change, or extremism from poverty to disease and global economic stability –- our young people will soon be leading the way. They will soon be building the businesses, and making the scientific discoveries, and writing the laws that will move our world forward for decades to come.

So we all need to keep pushing on their behalf. And I hope that today will be an opportunity for all of us to share ideas for how we can all give our children the bright futures they deserve.

So I want you all to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity that we have together. Don't be shy. Make sure that you talk to the ladies at your table about the great work that you're doing in your countries, because you are all doing some wonderfully powerful work. Ask others about what they're doing in their countries.

We all have so much to offer one another, and so much to learn, and so much support we can gain from each other. And that is one of the reasons I so enjoy this time that I have with spouses from other nations. It is truly a privilege to spend time with such great women who are struggling with some of the same struggles that I feel; who have the same hopes and dreams for not just their families, but for their countries.

And it is always an honor for me to spend time with you. Many of you have become friends. And I hope for those of you I'm just getting to meet, that we will develop that relationship as well.

So please relax. You are at home here. It is my delight to share this wonderful museum with you, so enjoy. And once again, I'm going to start -- stop talking so that you all can start talking and enjoy this wonderful meal and the performance that will follow.

Thank you all. Have a safe journey back home. And enjoy this moment together. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the United Nations General Assembly Spousal Luncheon in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320140

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